Saturday, October 23, 2010

Shawna K. Williams Shares Her Thoughts About Rules

Shawna K. Williams shares her thoughts about rules, rules, and more stinkin' rules (and why those rules can interfere with the heart of the author's story.) Reposted with Shawna’s permission from Michelle Sutton’s blog.

About Shawna...

I'm a lot of things, so I'll list them according to importance; I'm a Christian, a wife, mother, friend. I'm also a teacher, writer, artist, rancher, and animal lover. These last few kind of jostle for my attention, and what's more important one day, isn't the next. I think that's true with everyone.

(Michelle's intro.) Please welcome Shawna as she shares her heart for Christian fiction written by imperfect people and for imperfect people. People who need healing hearts because they are broken and hurting. People I write for, and that Shawna writes for. Real people. If you enjoy this article, please pass it on.

Learning to accept criticism is a must for writers, and constructive criticism is often welcome. After all, we seek to continually improve at our craft. But sometimes the criticism goes beyond suggestions for phrasing and description and hits at the heart of what we write, perhaps even hitting at the heart of who we are, questioning whether it's appropriate or not -- Christian or not.

The reason I often hear for excluding certain behavior by characters in a story is that as Christians we are to keep our thoughts pure, so by writing about shameful topics we are introducing temptation (impure thoughts) into the minds of our readers. I understand and respect this view, and it's why I try to be immensely careful in how I portray certain subject matter. Having said that, if this is a reader's main concern then I don't recommend my books. They aren't written with this as the primary purpose. They're written for people like me.

So, here's the short version of my story. I was brought up as a church going gal, three squares a week. There were rules; no stealing, killing, drinking, swearing, dancing, smoking, lying, associating with sinners, and absolutely no sex outside of marriage. Matter-of-fact, it was best to pretend like it didn't exist within marriage either – just to be safe, let's not talk about it period! I'm sure I'm leaving a few rules out, but these were the biggies.

There were rules for worship also. First, church service; don't miss it or you're going to hell. Second, no instrumental music in the building or everyone is going to hell. Third, don't smile, clap, or show any outward display of emotion. It's disrespectful and you'll go to hell – put your hands down and stop crying. Fourth, wear a dress if you're a girl and a suit and tie if you’re a boy – always your Sunday best, unless it's Wednesday – because it's a show of respect and you don't want to go to hell. Fifth, stick to the schedule; three songs, prayer, two songs, offering and communion, two more songs, prayer, sermon, invitation song, announcements, prayer, two more songs, dismissal prayer. To depart from this was a huge controversy. That's right; you might go to hell for it.

No gossip, as a rule, didn't apply because how else would everyone know who was breaking all of the other rules; and without gossip how could they safe guard others against breaking the rule to not associate with sinners? If they associated with sinners then they might be influenced to become a sinner, thus breaking even more rules and becoming one that others can't associate with. Catch the reasoning?

For a long time I did my best to be a good girl and obey every one of these rules, but for some reason these rules failed in helping me to build a spiritual relationship that would sustain me. As a matter-of-fact, I mostly felt guilty all of the time, questioning every action and thought and always finding myself to be a disappointment. After a while, I got tired of feeling guilty. If this was what it meant to be a Christian, then never mind. I could feel bad about myself without the help. Thus I began a pattern of behavior acting out my self-hatred. I didn't understand that God gave me rules for my protection, not my condemnation. Nor did I realize that not all of the rules listed above came from Him, and there was something of major importance left out.

Over the years I bounced from one form of destructive behavior to another. I'm hesitant to talk about it openly, but happy to do so privately. If anyone wishes to ask me anything, I'll include my email. My self-loathing escalated to a point that I was sure that God could never love me. When I thought about church I was overcome with a sense of rejection. I was a rule-breaker. There was no love or warmth there, and certainly not any form of understanding. My problem was that there was something wrong with me that wasn't wrong with others. I was a screw-up, always had been, and always would be. The church would be quick to remind me of such. I had never been taught that God provided a way to cover my inadequacies. Yes, I had heard of Grace; no, I didn't understand it. I believed I was alone.

God never lets anything go to waste, so He didn't let go of me, and through the course of time, events, and people He placed in my life, I finally began to understand His great love. He also convicted me that my misspent years shouldn't to go to waste either, and that I should use them to reach out with understanding to others like myself, so that they would know that they aren't alone. God sees them, hears them – loves them.

For a number of years I did this on a personal basis. Then I was led to write. I was already a reader, mostly of nonfiction, but I did have a few favorite authors in the secular realm. I also loved Max Lucado and Beth Moore. I hadn't read Christian fiction; however, I knew that I wanted to write it. My faith was entwined with me, a part of me, and I couldn't write anything else. It was clear that to write it, I needed to read it, so I picked up several books, anxious to begin this new journey in my walk with Christ. Suddenly, I was that teenage girl again, full of self-doubt and loathing, wondering if I'd been kidding myself about being a Christian and if everything about me was wrong.

The books I read were sweet, the characters pure; they quickly repented at the first sign of an ill-conceived thought, and always at the front of their minds was God's will. They never questioned, got mad – at least not seriously mad -- nor did they disobey. Their thoughts were always on the surface, innocent and controlled -- never conflicted. They said the right things, did the right things and the endings always worked out happily ever after. I couldn't relate to the good guys -- and what was worse is that sometimes I could relate to the bad guys!

It may sound silly to become so discouraged over the stories within books, but this was Christian fiction. It was about Christians and none of the characters seemed anything like me, except for the occasional bad guy.

Was I a Christian? I tried to be. Maybe God was still disappointed with me. Could I ever please Him? Did He love me? Was Grace for me, too? All of these questions played through my mind years after having thought they were resolved. I started to question whether writing was a foolish dream, whether I was "good" enough, and whether I even had a purpose in God's eyes.

Fortunately, a little ways down the road God managed to work a few books into my hands that gave me hope – books written for people like me. What a great feeling that was! To be reminded of Grace. Around that same time I discovered Michelle's group, Edgy Christian Fiction Lovers. I was delighted to find that there was a whole world of people like me who craved to know there were other Christians like them. We were a group of imperfect people who wanted to serve God by reaching out with a passion-driven purpose, proclaiming His Grace, and using our imperfections to do it. There were others like us God wanted to reach. This was our calling.

My intent with this post isn't to bash Christian fiction with pure characters. It's great to have that example to strive for, and I encourage writers whose passion is to write this to continue. There are many people who are encouraged in their daily lives through such wonderful stories. But I do hope that those same people can understand that there are others out there, Christians, non-Christians, Christians in crisis, who need to know that God hears their pain and understands. Authors like me strive to write stories from the heart, pure in honesty and love – if not in content – in the hope of reaching beyond the pages, wrapping a comforting arm around a hurting soul, and saying, "I know, and so does He." Our kinds of story are needed too.

Michelle says, "Amen, Shawna!"
And so I!!!
To contact Shawna (as offered above) e-mail her at

Note from Anne - I just have to say how much I loved seeing this post.  Shawna has hit on a subject that I myself have been dealing with on one of my books.  We aren't perfect, people!  Why should we have to pretend to be in our writing?


Lisa Alexander Griffin said...

Only by God's grace are we saved. None of us, no matter how hard we strive to be, are "perfect." It takes all kinds in this world of ours.Jesus didn't just walk with the pure of heart, but sinners who needed his help, the salvation he offered. I've been told by one specific person that I'll go to Hell for what I write. But I don't believe that. My stories aren't preachy, but they hold hope, love and compassion. A strong faith in God.

And I'm from the south, so I know exactly of what you speak.

Shawna Williams said...

Lisa, I encourage you to stick with it!

I honestly believe that there is a wide audience for this type of book. Sometimes they aren't as vocal as those who oppose such writing, but they're there.

Rebecca J Vickery said...

Hi Shawna and Anne,
I enjoyed reading this post. Thank you for sharing it.

Laurean Brooks said...

Thank you, Shawna.

Although my church didn't have as many strict rules, my mother did. I got the idea from her that God was up there watching to see if I did something wrong,just so he could strike me. I didn't understand about God's love and grace until as a 17-year-old I joined another church where people hugged you and told you they loved you. I lapped it up!

Like you, I don't enjoy reading stories about perfect people. Especially if it's one "perfect" person pitted against a so-called "bad" one.

That's why I make most of my characters sassy, spirited, and more than a little temperamental.

Hey, isn't that the way we really are? LOL